The Good Shepherd is needed now more than ever

By: By Tim Irwin

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 22

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23:1-3,3-4,5,6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34

The humble sheep enjoys a unique notoriety in Sacred Scripture as compared to other domesticated grazing animals. There are 4,970 references to sheep in the Bible and only 277 references to cattle.

Nowhere does the Bible refer to committed caretakers driving herds of cattle across the Holy Land, but the perseverance and love of the Good Shepherd is legendary. So it’s the shepherd, not the cowboy who has become a metaphor for Christ and probably just as well.

Sheep have been thought of as being dimwitted and docile, which may have contributed to their biblical triumph over cattle. Their reputation may be up for revision as a University of Illinois report on sheep discovered that they are just below pigs and equal to cattle in terms of intelligence. Apparently, they can recognize the faces of both humans and other sheep and have some problem-solving skills — survival skills, not math problems. Despite their newly recognized brain-power, they depend on their shepherd for their lives and that’s what makes them the ideal metaphor for Catholics.

In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah condemns the false prophets of Judah, whose preaching led the children of Israel to idolatry. The punishment for this lapse was the Babylonian conquest and subsequent deportation of the brightest and best of Judah to Babylon.

In a clear reference to Christ, Jeremiah proclaims that a righteous shoot of David will gather a remnant of his flock. “I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing,” says the Lord.

The response may be the most famous psalm of all time: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose; beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul.” Such is the deposition of the Catholic who waits in faith, hope and love for the Good Shepherd.

Paul in his letter to the Ephesians explains that the Good Shepherd has gathered the remnant through the cross. “Brothers and sisters: In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father,” explains Paul.

The Gospel makes plain the love of the Good Shepherd. The disciples have returned from the mission that Jesus sent them on last week. He invites them to go with him to a secluded place to rest and pray. Crowds made a departure on foot impractical, so Jesus and the disciples board a boat.

The crowds are not deterred: “People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things,” says Mark.

Today, we may think we no longer need the Good Shepherd made present in the world through his Church. Secular pundits often attack the teachings of the Church. These postmodern cowboys like to ride roughshod over our faith, offering the idol of the ego as a substitute for the Good Shepherd. Jeremiah’s condemnation seems as relevant as ever.

This Sunday let us seek the Good Shepherd in the Holy Eucharist, so that moved with pity he might invite us into eternal life.


TIM IRWIN teaches at Peoria Notre Dame High School, where he chairs the Theology Department. He is a member of St. Mark’s Parish in Peoria.

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